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A Passion for Chemistry: The Long Road of two DAAD Scholarship Holders to their Doctorates

Professor Ulrich Kortz (center) with the two DAAD scholarship awardees Sahar Khandan (right) and Mahmoud El Cheikh Mahmoud (left). (Source: Jacobs University)


April 28, 2022

As a Christian, Sahar Khandan was not allowed to do her doctorate in Iran. Mahmoud El Cheikh Mahmoud grew up as a stateless Palestinian in Lebanon. Both are outstanding young scientists, both share a passion for chemistry. And both have now received a doctoral scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) that will enable them to conduct their research at Jacobs University Bremen. "This is a wonderful achievement, they both deserve it for their passion and perseverance," said chemistry professor Ulrich Kortz, to whose research group they both belong.

Kortz is a pioneer in research on discrete metal-oxo clusters known as polyoxometalates (POM), a class of compounds with interesting catalytic and biomedical properties that he has been developing at Jacobs University with his research group since 2002. Sahar Khandan had read about this basic research in Iran and worked on POM herself in her master's studies at the University of Zanjan. However, when she wanted to do her doctorate, the Christian was questioned several times by government officials about her religious beliefs. Eventually, she was denied access to the doctorate program.

Sahar didn't give up. "I really wanted to continue my research in this area," she said. So she applied to another university in Iran and was accepted for the time being. However, after a year, the authorities intervened and she had to leave the university. "The fact that I was not allowed to do a doctorate as a Christian in Iran was difficult to accept," she said. Sahar decided to go abroad and applied to Professor Kortz at Jacobs University.

Here, since last May, she is witnessing and experiencing what Iran denies – that people with different religious beliefs can work, learn, research and live together very well. "I've made friends at Jacobs University from many different countries. It's a great experience."

Mahmoud's path has not been a straight one, either, though it has been quite different from that of his fellow PhD student. "My situation is complicated due to my nationality," the Palestinian recounted. Raised in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon, he neither has a Lebanese nor a Palestinian passport. He is stateless. It is difficult to get a visa to travel to Europe. For example, he was not allowed to enter Sweden for a cousin's wedding.

It's easier to go to the USA. There, he completed his bachelor's degree with the help of a scholarship. When his father died, he returned to Lebanon and took care of the family for a few years before completing his master's in chemistry at the American University of Beirut (AUB). "I had also considered mathematics, but chemistry is more concrete. I like working in the lab and developed a passion for the subject," he said. Mahmoud came to Bremen with the help of Ulrich Kortz, who had once taught at AUB himself for five years, before joining Jacobs University in 2002. "After my master's, I encountered endless waiting. Four months alone just to get an appointment at the German Embassy." When Ulrich Kortz personally wrote to the embassy, he got it within a few hours.

Sahar Khandan and Mahmoud El Cheikh Mahmoud are both researching on POM chemistry, but on very different materials and applications. Both are happy to have made it to Jacobs University and to be funded by a DAAD scholarship. They have security for the next three or four years. And then? "Whether in research or industry – Germany offers so many opportunities," Sahar said. Mahmoud summarized his future plans like this: "Many stateless people have no chance of a good future. I'm concentrating on my studies for now." Ulrich Kortz has no doubt that many doors will be open to them: "Both are excellent researchers. Both will continue on their paths."